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The Hungarian Prog Animated Masterpiece Time Forgot

He may not have been under the impression that monsters are real, but László Arany definitely believed in folktales. The 19th-century Hungarian poet, the son of an even more well-regarded poet, first cemented himself in the national literary canon with the verse novel Hero of Mirages in 1873. Having given Hungary its Grapes of Wrath, he continued to commit himself to the cause of codifying and preserving the region’s legacy of letters, and compiled a volume of myths circulating among nomadic steppe peoples. The Avars, Huns, Magyars, and Scythians had passed down wild fantasies of gods and beasts for generations through the oral tradition, and by committing them to the page, Arany ensured they wouldn’t fade away.

After one hundred years or so, posterity threatened once again to forget about these vivid fables of creation, heroism, and destruction. Enter Marcell Jankovics, the era’s preeminent name in animation around Hungary. His 1981 film Son of the White Mare, a sense-shattering cinematic pastiche of Arany’s mythological writings, explicitly announces itself as a tribute to the extinguished steppe cultures. Jankovics resumed the great poet’s work of keeping that heritage alive through creatively liberated archiving, bringing a remote and obscure pocket of the past to a present losing touch with itself. This cycle of preservation and appreciation will be realized once more this month, as a brilliant restoration from Arbelos Films and the Hungarian Film Archive comes to virtual cinemas, making this jewel of esoterica widely available to Americans for the first time. Arany and Jankovics fretted that without their constant artistic revitalization, these stories would disappear. How could they have known that one day, it would all live on in living rooms worldwide?

Just as these the particulars of these stories evolved as travelers relayed them through imperfect recollection, so too did contents shift as they moved between mediums. Jankovics made some alterations to the building blocks of Hungarian legend, in part to compress it all into feature length and in part to put his own stamp on the material. He centers the importance of storytelling with a yonic-imagery-strewn overture introducing a celestial family in which genesis myths make sense of the turbulent, violent world around them. A beautiful white horse warns her humanoid demigod son Treetearer (one of three with Beowulfian heavy-metal honorifics, including brothers Stonecrumbler and Ironkneader) of the mighty, terrible dragons that laid waste to the land and dethroned his deity grandparents. As is mythic custom, he embarks on a quest to fell the behemoths and restore balance to the universe, a reality-bending odyssey of helpful griffins, sentient tanks, and porridge-stealing gnomes.

WHITE MARE

All too appropriately, the film has been an underground word-of-mouth sensation among cult-movie enthusiasts since shortly after its initial release, having gained early North American recognition from the hardcore cinephiles at the 1984 Los Angeles Animation Olympics. They, like the intrepid trawlers that sought out this hard-to-find film through back channels and sharing networks, were drawn to its reputation as a high-potency dose of psychedelia. Jankovics staked out his own territory by filtering the aesthetics of folk art through a surreal mélange of bodily mutilation, suns and moons, Freudian genital symbolism, and dystopian industrialism. His work comes to us from the European school of mythmaking, in which subject matter delves deeper into violence and sexuality than the once-upon-a-times taught to kids in the States. The stoner chuckling that “that tree looks like a dick” has made a critically valid observation; things often transmogrify into other things to fuse one shot to the next, forging surprising associative links and creating an unbroken continuity that evokes the “how did we get here?” quality of a dream. Jankovics referred to this as ‘metamorphosis,’ a technique he pursued throughout his career.

The director’s spirit of anything-goes experimentalism extended to deeper foundations, too; he eschewed the usual black contour outlines, a choice that served the dual purposes of setting his work apart from common cartoons while allowing his characters to sink into their backgrounds for splashy frames melding color into a single swirl. Jankovics fetishized a kaleidoscopic, earthy symmetry far removed from the fastidious setups of Wes Anderson, going so far as to split Treetearer’s head in two while he addresses his brothers in a held wide shot, rather than cutting back and forth. He plays with the negative space around the frame, sprouting black trees out of it in one moment and jutting it outward like a stabbing knife in another. The ambient proto-synth soundtrack from István Vajda clinches the overall oneiric mood, conjuring the mental picture of a shifting glacier or grinding plates of the planet’s mantle.

On the basis of luxuriant, hallucinatory beauty, the film has few peers. Jankovics’ style exists in a class all its own, but a list of contextualizing reference points hints at the specifically primal, elemental nature of its majestic strangeness: sci-fi paperbacks and fantasy comic books, Pink Floyd laser shows and prog rock concept albums, Disney’s Fantasia and Japanese abstract expressionist classic Belladonna of Sadness. (The Mouse House eventually reached out to Jankovics to collaborate on Kingdom of the Sun, the calamitous South American musical epic that eventually turned into The Emperor’s New Groove. In interviews, he’s candid about that being a strictly paycheck gig.)

And yet it is ultimately like nothing but itself, an artifact from a far-off time and place that feels all the more distant for its mystique of the unknown. After transporting us over craggy mountain ranges, across the cosmos, and through the underworld, Jankovics spits the audience out somewhere close to the now. Near the film’s conclusion, Treetearer finds himself in a metropolis of the ‘80s, choked with smog and stuffed with skyscrapers. His vision of his future lands like a nightmare, the purity and wonder of his pre-everything origins replaced by commerce and machinery and the greed they amplify. He contrasts an ancient age guided by spirituality, belief, and feeling with a cold modernity marred by technology, war, and decay. He has no place there.

Time leaves him behind as a tacit plea from Jankovics to be active and mindful about engaging with history. Whatever we don’t keep will be paved over or simply vanish, a process made literal by the coda. He strives to spark new interest by employing every visual trick at his considerable disposal, rendering these feats and fights as spellbinding as they would’ve been to travelers with nothing else for amusement. His film turns the act of salvage anthropology into a fireworks display, thunderous proof that nothing has to gather dust as it gets old. In fact, this curio manages a miraculous inverse, growing more exotic and revelatory as the years put more space between its era and today.

The pleasure of the cult object has always lain in the thrill of discovery, that sensation of stumbling into something rare and wholly alien to the mainstream. Jankovics leans all the way into that appeal, as if he knew that one day, his film would be unearthed rather than merely watched. The fantasy genre purports to open a window into another dimension, but those other planes often take a shape inflecting our own. This exemplary exception plunges its viewer into a realm truly and totally foreign, and in doing so, makes a lost society a little more familiar.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevassse) is a film and television critic living in Brooklyn. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Nylon, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vox, and plenty of other semi-reputable publications. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.

Where to stream Son Of The White Mare on Virtual Cinema

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